The last time the Howard County Council tried to shift district boundary lines to conform with population growth, a two-year political fight ended in Circuit Court.
The Democratic-controlled County Council proposed a redistricting plan in 1992 that Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker thought went too far, so he vetoed it. The resulting political standoff left bitterness all around.
But this time should be very different, Democrats and Republicans say, as each party prepares to submit names by tomorrow for the county's first redistricting commission, a compromise attempt to take the political sting out of the process that voters approved in 1996.
Most elected officials believe it will do that, as well as give the public more time to get involved and learn about planned changes.
"I'm hopeful the Democrats and Republicans will work together," said County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican who was involved in the court battle after the last census.
Since Howard's population has jumped from 187,000 in 1990 to nearly a quarter-million people now, council district boundary lines must change. But until census information is available, no one knows exactly how the new residents are distributed.
Redistricting is always important politically because the placement of the lines can make getting elected easier or more difficult, but this time it carries extra weight for two reasons:
With the final alignment not due until early 2002 - an election year - candidates will have only a few months to decide where and what to run for, and start their campaigns. Thus, because of the short lead time, the party that controls the process will have a clear advantage.
The lines drawn in 2002 will remain the same for three statewide elections, instead of two, because the next census will not be taken until 2010 and the results of that census will not be available for that year's election. Redistricting after the 2010 census won't take hold until 2014's elections.
Kittleman and county Republicans know that unlike eight years ago, the Democrats rule Howard County government, with James N. Robey as county executive and a 3-2 council majority.
The Democrats' goal will be to preserve that dominance by including as many Democratic voters as possible in Councilman Guy J. Guzzone's third district, which covers the county's southeastern corner of North Laurel and Savage and parts of Kings Contrivance in Columbia, which has changed party hands twice in the last two elections. Democrats seem solidly entrenched in Columbia's two council districts, while Republicans seem equally at home now in the other two, covering western Howard and Ellicott City/Elkridge. Guzzone's swing district puts the party that wins it in control of the council.
"Those in control are going to do what they want to do, as long as you don't do something patently ridiculous," said Del. Robert H. Kittleman, the councilman's father and House of Delegates minority leader.
Howard's voters approved the commission system in 1996 as a charter change.
Each major party gets to select three members for the commission, and the County Council picks the seventh member and the chairman. The commission appointments should be submitted for council approval in February, and the work should begin as soon as census figures come out in April.
A commission recommendation is due in October, and the council can make revisions, but if the council and executive can't agree on a plan by March, the commission's plan automatically takes effect.
The Democrats have advertised for people interested in serving, while Republicans have chosen names internally.
"We wanted to get the word out to the public to let everyone know that this is the time. It's a good way to reach out to as many people as we can," said Wendy Fiedler, Democratic Party chairwoman. She hoped to recruit a few more party activists in the process.
Louis M. Pope, Republican Party chairman, said he was surprised to see the Democrats' advertisements because of the specialized talents needed for the commission. "All these people are politically attuned, but we're looking for people familiar with the council. You want people who understand the numbers, the issues and who can work toward a compromise," he said.
Republicans and Democrats alike say they feel the commission system, which is used in Harford, Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Montgomery counties, offers the best chance for a fair and open route to new district lines.
"My expectation is that it really just puts into a formal practice what would have been done anyway," said Guzzone. "It's a responsibility. The fundamentals are that everyone's vote should count equally."
Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon also praised the new system.
"I think the idea is a good one. Hopefully, the people appointed will be impartial and look at the council district lines according to population," Merdon said. Like the new General Plan or the school crowding law, a citizen commission doing its work publicly is exactly in Howard County's open- government tradition, he said.
Although a political process, "it's a greater opportunity for public input," agreed C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat and the only council member in office during the last redistricting.
"At the very least," Republican state Del. Robert L. Flanagan said, "members of the commission won't be worried about their own [political] hides."